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Mozart's Lost Letter

TUESDAY, JULY 23, 2013

An intriguing project for a music history term paper or a report in a pedagogy class would be Mozart’s instructions for playing the C-minor Fantaisie and Sonata given in a letter to Therese von Trattner, the dedicatee. That the actual letter has been lost, as described in Alfred Einstein’s Mozart – His Character, His Work, alone makes a scholarly recomposing of its content a fertile subject. An academic authority might object to such a reconstruction as fiction or question the validity of Einstein’s statement. One could counter that the research itself would be of real value to a pianist, including references to interpretation in Emily Anderson’s two-volume collection of the letters of Mozart and his family or contemporary studies such as Sandra Rosenblum’s Performance Practice in Classic Piano Music. In the hands of a serious interpreter the playing of the Fantaisie and Sonata, like the advice in the lost letter, is based on informed, intelligent conjecture regarding how Mozart might have heard the piece in his own mind. Emerson is supposed to have described history as a fable agreed upon; musical interpretation is rarely agreed upon – nor should it be.

Although we cannot know whether Mozart’s comments were general or detailed, for the clarity and discipline of one’s own thinking it would be well to assume that the lost letter contained explicit directions – directions for rhythmic accuracy and the exact placement of dynamic markings, or for the playing of the octaves in m. 84 of the Fantaisie (one hand or two?), or for the facilitation of the widely crossed hands passages in the last movement. However, beyond details of this nature there are assumptions one would make recomposing the letter that would bring an awareness of the shifting border between creation and re-creation, the personal response that engages the world of spirit within the score.

As an example of personal response, Einstein speaks of the “grim seriousness” of the work and its “Beethovenisme d’avant la lettre.” True enough, it is improbable that Mozart would have counseled Therese to conceal the passion that lives between the barlines. Yet finding a Beethoven-like quality in the Mozart can be deceptive. Compare the broken chord theme of the first movement of the Sonata with the broken chord theme in m. 20 of the D-minor Sonata of Beethoven. The themes are identical, except that Beethoven ends on the tonic note on the downbeat and Mozart on the third of the chord on a weak beat. What is the difference in meaning between the two? Or the sound of unisons in the Mozart theme compared with the triplet tremolo in the D-minor Sonata? Another comparison might place Beethoven’s “fate knocking at the door” motive in the Appassionata beside Mozart’s use of the same rhythmic figure in the Fantaisie preceding the return of the opening section. What does the difference mean to you? Do you think that Mozart might have pointed to out to Therese the significance of the placing of the sf on the first eighth note of the figure?

Meaning, of course, inspires widely contrasting reactions, from that of the editor who added words to all three movement of the Beethoven “Moonlight” sonata to the decision of a doctoral committee when deliberating over a student paper on the Diabelli Variations. The paper in question had a section on the “philosophical dimension of the music.” The committee threw out that part, maintaining that music did not have a philosophical dimension…

Regardless of the individual dissimilarities mentioned above, subjective response, or call it emotional states of being, is an impelling stimulus human beings experience. It would seem certain that Mozart would have spoken about a concept of the piece that was rhetorical, whether or not he used the word. The background of rhetorical thinking in performance would be another avenue of research for the term paper we are considering. What would you learn about lengthening of notes or rests? About the fluctuating feel of movement within absolute tempo? About the balance of subjective and objective?

Einstein speculates that Mozart’s document might have alluded to personal matters “which had to be hidden from posterity.” It is not possible to know what thoughts darted through Mozart’s mind as he committed the sounds to paper. Whatever these thoughts may have been, you may decide that comments in Mozart’s letter regarding articulation, dynamics, and flexibility of tempo might have been more appropriately described as “passion before the letter.”


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